First of all, he unequivocally deserves to return as the head coach. The Hawks won as many games this past season as could reasonably be expected considering the talent on hand. They won (as they should have) their first-round playoff series.
Yet even after five full seasons and three playoff series Woodson remains something of an enigma. The success of 2008-09 season seemed not to make an impact on him. At times he gave the distinct impression that he wasn't central to those accomplishments. Consider the volume of quotes from him regarding the Hawks winning games because half the rotation were setting career highs shooting the ball versus the volume of quotes from him stating that the Hawks were winning games because of vaguely defined lessons learned from getting beat by the Boston Celtics in the 2007-08 playoffs. It was as if keeping his job the summer prior outweighed the importance of the team's improvement. Frankly, I don't know what to make of him, or, at least, I lack confidence in my suppositions about the man. Perhaps the absence of personality (beyond stubborn reticence) he shares with and through the media and his insistence on sticking with tactics that seem less than ideal mask some very real, positive traits that help the team win games.
For the three or four weeks the national media* considered the Atlanta Hawks this season, much credit was given to the organization for employing Mike Woodson for five seasons and to Woodson himself for improving the team from 13 to 47 wins** over that period.
*I admit that the speed with which pundits ran out of things to say about this team pleased me in a petty way. With little to no variation from the basic gameplan ever made evident on either offense (isolate Joe Johnson) or defense (switch every screen) the Hawks are what they are to an astounding degree. Try working with that for 82 games a year, professional commentators.
**Why does Woodson get credit for coaching a 13-win team? It certainly wasn't his decision to make the team that bad but it's still odd that he gets to set his own baseline. Had he done a masterful job of coaching and squeezed 20 or more wins out of that group would the Hawks' overall improvement really be less impressive?
Now, the Hawks have improved in general* and made consistent progress defensively in particular during Woodson's tenure as head coach.
|Season||Off Eff (Rank)||Def Eff (Rank)||Margin|
|2004-05||100.6 (29)||111.1 (29)||-10.5|
|2005-06||106.4 (12)||111.6 (27)||-5.2|
|2006-07||103.0 (29)||108.3 (23)||-5.3|
|2007-08||106.9 (16)||108.9 (18)||-2|
|2008-09||109.3 (10)||107.6 (11)||+1.7|
Despite the progress the end result is only a slightly above average team despite the significant resources** expended since the summer of 2005. Given the head coach's long-standing difficulty with regard to making adjustments, exploiting matchups, and motivating or disciplining players I think it's a fair question as to whether the team's growth the last two years has as much to do with him as with the acquisition of both a point guard and a center who arrived as polished players in need of relatively little coaching.
*Though it is a bit disturbing that, relative to the league, the offense wasn't much better last year than in 2005-06 despite Marvin Williams' improvement and replacing Zaza Pachulia and Royal Ivey/Tyronn Lue with Al Horford and Mike Bibby. The Woodson/Joe Johnson offensive axis can really flatten the difference in quality between quite different players.
**Since the end of 04-05, the Hawks invested two first round picks and the rights to Boris Diaw to acquire Joe Johnson, picked 2nd and 31st in the 2005 NBA Draft, 5th and 33rd in the 2006 NBA Draft, and 3rd and 11th in the 2007 NBA Draft, spent $16 million over four years on Zaza Pachulia, and $15 million per pro-rated annum for a year-and-a-half of Mike Bibby.
Woodson's greatest visible weakness remains his unwillingness or inability to adjust. The team's defense faced an uphill battle due to Mike Bibby's inability to stay in front of anyone. Switching every screen as part of a sagging man-to-man defense worked fairly well against teams with at least one non-scorer against whom the Hawks could hide Bibby but allowed better offensive teams to isolate whomever they wanted against Bibby by virtue of using a single ball-screen. Despite this downside the Hawks failed to develop an alternative defensive strategy.
Four years ago, it made sense for the team's offense to be built around and over-reliant upon Joe Johnson. Today that makes sense to no one other than Mike Woodson and Joe Johnson yet the strategy persists and suppresses the talents of Horford, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith.
This lack of strategic flexibility extends to the use of players themselves. Once Woodson decides on a role for a player, that role does not change. His rigid hierarchy for players is most often evidenced by the starter/reserve distinction on which spurred Josh Childress's flight to Greece, sees Maurice Evans pulled from a game if the Hawks give up a basket due to poor pick-and-roll defense from Mike Bibby or Josh Smith, leaves Smith in a game the Hawks are losing on the defensive glass because Smith is a starter and Pachulia is a reserve. It also reveals itself in favoring players regardless of their basketball ability by refusing to develop Acie Law IV even as a backup point guard while persisting in using Mario West as if he were a special defensive player. The only real change one saw with Mike Woodson last season was a greater willingness to play players after they picked up their second foul in the first half.
I struggle to envision how this team, as currently constructed and deployed can improve upon the 2008-09 season. To progress beyond the second round of the playoffs I suspect that the team needs to make personnel changes, the players who remain need to change their approach in some ways, and the head coach either needs to evolve to take advantage of all the talent at his disposal or find a job better suited to his skills.